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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Dawson route : a phase of westward expansion Litteljohn, Bruce M

Abstract

THE DAWSON ROUTE: A PHASE OF WESTWARD EXPANSION The basic problem attacked in this thesis is the general lack of readily available knowledge concerning the Dawson Route. While there is much material in manuscript collections and in government publications, little attention has been paid the route in other places. Several scholars have dealt briefly with particular aspects of the route, but no person has treated it in a comprehensive fashion. This thesis sets out to rectify this situation. It has been written in the belief that a short general history of the Dawson Route — dealing with its origins, development, use, and significance — is justified and will be of some interest. Secondary problems have emerged in the course of this inquiry. In coping with these, the writer has attempted to describe the physical nature of the route and the natural obstacles overcome in its construction, and to tell why and how it was built. He has also tried to tell who used it, what it was like to travel the route during the 1870's, and to describe its relationship to other transportation routes. Finally, he has attempted to explain why it declined and to assess its significance. The thesis, in short, is a brief general history of the Dawson Route. The research for this paper has been carried forward at libraries and archives in Ottawa, Toronto, Port Arthur, St. Paul, Winnipeg, and Atikokan. Because physiography looms large in the story of the Dawson Route, a number of field trips into the area it traversed have been undertaken. Again, because the route was a physical thing, considerable effort has been expended in locating and reproducing maps and pictorial material to illustrate its use, its characteristics, and the country through which it passed. The writer has benefitted from involvement in archaeological and historical projects undertaken along the route in recent years. Several conclusions have grown out of this inquiry. In large degree, the Dawson Route was an extension and refinement of a long tradition of water transportation in the area between Lake Superior and the Red River. It was developed in the face of considerable physical obstacles and may be viewed as a triumph over those obstacles. Concern for the economic and political future of the British Northwest inspired its construction. This concern was largely a result of the expansionist temper of Americans, and particularly Minnesotans. Combined with this were transportation developments and physical expansion in Minnesota, as well as the activities of the Canadian Party in Red River, which also worked to encourage the construction of a Canadian transportation route. The Dawson Route served a useful military- political purpose in 1870, but its success as an emigrant route to attract settlers to the Red River area (for which it was primarily designed) was severely limited. It declined because of inherent weaknesses and because of developments in competing transportation facilities, both north and south of the international boundary. The relationship of the Dawson Route to the Canadian Pacific Railway was closer than has been suspected, and the fact that it survived for even a short period after 1873 was largely owing to the railway policy of Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie. In a sense, the route was obsolete from the day it opened for emigrant travel in 1871. Nonetheless, it served a useful purpose and appears to have reflected the willingness of Canadians to marshall the resources of the new nation in the interests of an expansive national purpose.

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